Threads of Kinship
Chinese births, deaths and marriages in New South Wales to 1918
Threads of Kinship is a project to document early Chinese families in New South Wales.
Often thought of as a society of ‘bachelors’, the early NSW Chinese community actually included many families made up of men and women of Chinese, white / European, Aboriginal and mixed heritage. Threads of Kinship is using official records of birth, death and marriage to document their number and location, providing a comprehensive picture of early NSW Chinese families for the first time.
In many accounts of Chinese life in the Australian colonies, the predominantly male character of the Chinese population has been taken as evidence of an ‘absence’ of family life.
The work of many family historians and other researchers over the past three decades suggests, however, the significant extent to which Chinese men in Australia did form intimate relationships, marry, father children, and live as part of family units.
But there are still many unanswered questions.
Exactly how many Chinese families were there? How many marriages? How many families included migrant Chinese women? How many Chinese and part-Chinese children were born? Where did these families live? And how did their numbers change over time?
Threads of Kinship sets out to provide data that could answer these and other questions, by initially collating information from NSW birth, death and marriage indexes. The project is being run by Dr Kate Bagnall, a historian at the University of Tasmania.
How you can help
The Threads of Kinship project is taking place in stages, beginning with the compilation of an initial dataset of information extracted from published birth, death and marriage indexes (NSW Pioneers Index 1788–1918). In time this data will be published online.
A second stage will be to add further data collected from full birth, death and marriage registrations / certificates, including those found in immigration files in the National Archives of Australia and held by family historians and descendants.
In the first stage, the project needs help from you – genealogists, community historians and family members – to transcribe information from the indexes! You can transcribe as little or as much as you like – every bit helps.
All you need is a computer or other device with software that will open a PDF document and a spreadsheet (e.g. Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets). You do not need to connect to the internet to transcribe the data, but you will need to be able to email.
Transcription process – Stage 1
- Contact Kate Bagnall by email to register your interest in being part of the project: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Kate will send you a PDF document with data from the NSW Pioneers Index microfiche, a spreadsheet (in Excel or Google Sheets, whichever you prefer) to use to transcribe the data, and clear instructions on what to do.
- You will transcribe the relevant data from the NSW Pioneers Index into the spreadsheet, and once complete, send the spreadsheet back to Kate.
- Kate will add your data to the main database, checking and verifying it, and she will add your name to the list of contributors on this website (or you can remain anonymous if you prefer).
- When all the relevant data from the NSW Pioneers Index is compiled, Kate will publish the initial dataset online (e.g. in Zenodo or similar open data repository).
In Stage 2 of the project we will seek copies and full transcriptions of birth, death and marriage certificates corresponding to the Chinese births, deaths and marriages identified in Stage 1, as well as information about Chinese ancestors we might have missed (e.g. because they had an English-sounding name like ‘John Peters’).
See ‘Sample documents’ below for examples of the NSW Pioneers Index data, the spreadsheet, and NSW BDM certificates.
The initial research that underpins Threads of Kinship was undertaken when I was doing my PhD at the University of Sydney. My PhD project looked at Chinese-European families in colonial New South Wales, and as part of my research I compiled a list of Chinese-European marriages in New South Wales to 1888.
My mother, Carlene Bagnall, took on the task of going through the microfiche version of the NSW Pioneers Index and either printing out or noting the details of individuals with ‘Chinese’ names. The NSW indexes do not include place of birth or race/ethnicity, so names are the only clue to ethnicity. ‘Chinese’ names she included were:
- names that are obviously Chinese, e.g. Chew Loong, Chee Tan, Chong Quong
- names including the prefix Ah or its variant spellings, e.g. Ah Lee, Ahthu, Ar Hang, Ateak
- names which are most probably Chinese, e.g. Hing, Foohy, Jong
- names in the index that include ‘Chinese’ or ‘Chinaman’.
There are, of course, other family names that are more difficult to categorise as ‘Chinese’ or ‘non-Chinese’. These names, such as Lee and King, could either be an English or a Chinese family name, and they were copied only where it was obvious that they were ‘Chinese’, most usually due to a ‘Chinese’ given name (e.g. Cong Lee; King Sing).
Carlene’s notes and printouts fill three lever arch folders, and it is these that are providing the data for Threads of Kinship. I began the process of creating the broader Threads of Kinship database (which does not focus solely on Chinese-European families) after completing my PhD, but I had to put it aside to focus on other parts of my research. The time seems right now, however, to pick things back up again!
- SAMPLE – NSW Pioneers Index (PDF format)
- SAMPLE – Threads of Kinship data entry spreadsheet (Excel format)
NSW marriage registration from NSW BDM (old style)
NSW birth registration from NSW BDM (new style)
Original NSW birth certificate (late 19th century)
Threads of Kinship uses the term ‘Chinese family’ in its broadest sense – meaning families that included at least one person of Chinese or part-Chinese heritage, born in Australia or overseas. For example, this would include marriages between:
- a Chinese woman and a Chinese man both born in China
- an Australian-born woman of English heritage and a Chinese man born in China
- a German woman and an Australian-born man of mixed Chinese-European heritage
- an Australian-born woman of mixed Chinese-European heritage and an Australian-born man of British heritage
and births of children to:
- an Irish-born mother and an Australian-born father of Chinese heritage
- an Indigenous Australian mother and a Hong-Kong-born father of Chinese heritage
- a Chinese mother and a Chinese father, both born in China.
For the purposes of the initial stage of the Threads of Kinship data collection using the NSW Pioneers Index:
- a ‘Chinese birth’ is one where either parent has a Chinese-sounding name, or is known to be of Chinese or part-Chinese heritage
- a ‘Chinese death’ is where the individual has a Chinese-sounding name, or is known to be of Chinese or part-Chinese heritage
- a ‘Chinese marriage’ is one where husband or wife has a Chinese-sounding name, or is known to be of Chinese or part-Chinese heritage.
We realise that our sources in the first stage of the project – indexes of official registrations of birth, death and marriage – will be incomplete and not capture every individual who might be considered part of a ‘Chinese family’ in colonial NSW – for example, an ex-nuptial (‘illegitimate’) child of a Chinese father and white mother whose birth was registered under the mother’s (English) name only. We also recognise that by focusing on formally registered marriages, deaths and births we will be excluding individuals and families not documented in these records. We hope that the second stage of the project – where genealogists and descendants can contribute data from their own family’s records – will rectify this gap somewhat.
NSW births, deaths and marriages
- Births, Deaths and Marriages Guide (NSW State Archives) – historical information and sources for baptisms, deaths and marriages in the NSW State Archives collection
- Registry Records (NSW Registry of BDM) – information about records held by the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
- NSW BDM Early Church and District Codes – a list of church and district codes used in the NSW BDM indexes
- The New South Wales Pioneers Index 1788–1918 [microform] – State Library of NSW bibliographic record for the microfiche NSW BDM indexes used in Threads of Kinship
- Karen Schamberger, ‘150th Anniversary of the Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages‘, Phanfare, no. 215, November-December 2005 – short article about the NSW Registry of BDMs and its records
Chinese families in colonial New South Wales
Work by Kate Bagnall:
- 2006 ‘Golden shadows on a white land: An exploration of the lives of white women who partnered Chinese men and their children in southern Australia, 1855–1915‘, PhD thesis, University of Sydney.
- 2011 ‘Rewriting the history of Chinese families in nineteenth-century Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, March, pp. 62–77.
- 2017 ‘“To his home at Jembaicumbene”: Women’s cross-cultural encounters on a colonial goldfield‘, in Jacqueline Leckie, Angela McCarthy and Angela Wanhalla (eds), Migrant Cross-Cultural Encounters in Asia and the Pacific, Routledge, Abingdon & New York.
- 2020 ‘Chinese women in colonial New South Wales: From absence to presence’, Australian Journal of Biography and History, vol. 3, pp. 3–20.
- 2021 with Julia Martínez, ‘Introduction: Chinese Australian women, migration, and mobility’, in Kate Bagnall and Julia Martínez (eds), Locating Chinese Women: Historical Mobility Between China and Australia, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.
If you are interested in helping transcribe data for the project, please email Kate Bagnall at email@example.com.